George Eogan obituary: Archaeologist who unearthed passage tombs of Knowth

Unpretentious academic played role in Wood Quay being listed as national monument

Prof George Eogan

Born: September 14, 1930

Died: November 18, 2021

Prof George Eogan, the internationally renowned archaeologist and former professor of archaeology at University College Dublin (UCD) whose dedicated excavations at Knowth helped bring international attention to the monuments of the World Heritage Site at Bru na Boinne has died aged 91.


Dr Pat Wallace, former director of the National Museum said Eogan was “the most influential archaeologist that Ireland has ever produced”.

Eogan was a leading scholar of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe with a particular focus on the bronze and gold objects of these periods. His research into the Neolithic passage tombs of Ireland and western Europe saw him direct over 40 years of archaeological excavations at the Knowth passage tombs in Co Meath.

He was one of the first people in modern times to enter the two great passage tombs of the Great Mound at Knowth. In a later interview, he said, “to have had the privilege of entering these tombs is for me one of the great events that one could ever experience”. These two tombs which he and his team discovered in 1967 and 1968 are the longest passage tombs ever found in western Europe.

Eogan went on to discover many other smaller tombs and uncover an open air gallery of ancient megalithic art, the abundance and quality of which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The decorated macehead found in the eastern tomb at Knowth – which is on permanent display in the National Museum – is one of the finest artefacts ever recovered from a Neolithic site.

In 1991, when Knowth opened to the public for the first time, Eogan helped train the Office of Public Works guides at the site. That same year, he became the founding chairman of the Discovery Programme, a Heritage Council funded initiative which promotes archaeological research and education. In 2007, he was awarded the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal in the Humanities in 2007.

Prestigious bodies

Throughout his long career, he was a member of many prestigious bodies including Academia Europa, the German Archaeological Institute and the Society of Antiquaries of London. He served on the Archaeology Committee of the European Science Foundation and the Higher Education Committee of the Council of Europe. He also served as an adviser of the National Monuments Advisory Council and the Historic Monuments Council in Northern Ireland. He travelled to conferences, museums and archaeological sites across Europe.

Always keen that the structures and supports were in place for archaeologists, Eogan was the first chairperson of the Irish Association of Professional Archaelogists [now the Institute of Archaelogists of Ireland]. He was also, according to Wallace, “the star witness” in the High Court case which declared the Wood Quay Viking site a national monument even though Dublin City Council offices were subsequently built on it. In recognition of his leadership in archaeology, the then taoiseach, Charles J Haughey, appointed him as an independent senator to Seanad Éireann in 1987, a post he held for two years.

Unpretentious in manner and sociable by nature, he was as comfortable talking about archaeology to tour bus drivers as he was to academics, diplomats or politicians. His layperson’s guide, Knowth and the Passage Tombs of Ireland (Thames and Hudson, 1986) reached a wide audience at home and abroad. His other books include Catalogue of Irish Bronze Swords (1965), The Hoards of the Irish Later Bronze Age (1983), The Accomplished Art: Gold and Gold-working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age (1994) and the Socketed Bronze Axes in Ireland (2000).

George Eogan grew up in Nobber, Co Meath, where his early interest in archaeology was whetted by a national school teacher who had a degree in archaeology. He left school following his Group Cert at Nobber Technical School and worked at various jobs while pursuing his interest in archaeology by going on outings with the Royal Society of Antiquities. In the early 1950s, he got work as a labourer on archaeological digs for the National Museum of Ireland. Paddy Hartnett, an archaeologist working for the National Museum, recognised and encouraged his enthusiasm and when Hartnett became the first archaeologist employed by Bord Fáilte to promote archaeological tourism, Eogan became his assistant.

Palestine and Jordan

At this point, Eogan enrolled as a night student at University College Dublin (UCD) to study for a degree in archaeology and English.

Upon his graduation from UCD, he studied for his PhD under Prof Frank Mitchell at Trinity College Dublin. As a trainee archaeologist in the early 1960s, Eogan also won a scholarship with the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem to work on archaeological sites in Palestine and Jordan.

He worked as a researcher at TCD, the University of Oxford and Queen’s University Belfast before being appointed as a lecturer in archaeology at UCD in 1965. He met his wife to be, Fiona Stephens at UCD when, as a social science student, she took his classes in archaeology. The couple were married in 1969 and every year decamped with their young children to spend the summer in the Boyne Valley. Their son, James Eogan – who is also an archaeologist – remembers how the family stayed from June to August in Townley Hall alongside international students where his mother cooked and looked after everyone. These included a stream of visiting artists, poets, politicians and ambassadors. It enabled his father to concentrate on working on excavations with his team of professional archaeologists, volunteers and local workmen.

George became professor of archaeology at UCD in 1979 and continued in that role until his retirement in 1995. Popular among students for his passion for archaeology and his wry sense of humour, he mentored numerous archaeologists who then went on to add to the knowledge of prehistoric Ireland. He cycled from his home in Rathgar to the Belfield campus in all weathers and was a reluctant retiree. In fact, he unsuccessfully took a High Count challenge against UCD, seeking the right to continue working until he was 70. Following his official retirement from UCD, he continued his research interests for over 20 years. In recognition of his career and achievements, his colleagues edited a book in his honour entitled, From Megaliths to Metals: Essays in Honour of George Eogan (Oxbow Books, 2004).

An ardent fan of the GAA, Prof Eogan maintained links with his native county and wrote regular articles for the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society Journal, Riocht na Midhe. He often said that one of his greatest honours was when he was named Meath Personality of the Year in 2003. In 2016, President Michael D Higgins officially opened the George Eogan Cultural and Heritage Centre in Nobber in honour of the town’s own archaeologist. In 2020, Eogan’s library was donated to the National Museum and his papers were donated to the UCD archives. The last monograph (which covers megalithic art) on his excavations at Knowth will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in spring 2022.

Prof George Eogan is survived by his wife Fiona; their children James, Maeve, Deirdre and Cliona; 10 grandchildren; extended family and colleagues.